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Knesset bill would let terror victims sue for punitive damages

The “Compensation for Terror Victims” law would serve as an effective deterrent, analysts say.

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and 11 other terrorist groups take part in the Strong Foundation "military" drill in the Gaza Strip, Dec 29, 2020. Photo by Majdi Fathi/TPS.
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and 11 other terrorist groups take part in the Strong Foundation "military" drill in the Gaza Strip, Dec 29, 2020. Photo by Majdi Fathi/TPS.

While Israelis are arguably the population most targeted by terrorism, supporters of a new Knesset bill say the country lags behind when it comes to providing legal avenues for victims to pursue financial damages, with current law actually placing obstacles before those wishing to file such claims.

Titled “Compensation for Terror Victims,” the legislation calls for removing those barriers that prevent civil tort claims against terrorists, including the Palestinian Authority. The P.A. encourages terrorism through its “pay-for-slay” program. (It refers to it as its Martyrs Fund.)

The main impediment facing terrorism victims in Israel is the low compensation that courts award in tort cases. Courts also deduct from the compensation money that victims receive from the state. In many cases, courts refrain from imposing punitive damages altogether.

“The low amount of compensation that the courts award the victims is therefore not worth the trouble, cost and aggravation involved in filing a tort claim, thus creating a negative incentive to file claims,” the bill states in its explanatory section.

Another barrier to filing tort claims is that victims often find it difficult to enforce judgments when compensation is awarded.

The bill calls for courts to be “required to award exemplary damages” by establishing a minimum compensation of at least 10 million shekels (~$2.8 million). To ease the collection of the awards, judgments may, if the bill becomes law, be enforced against “any property of the defendant, including any property seized or frozen by the State of Israel.”

Asher Stub. Courtesy.

The bill’s author and initiator, Asher Stub, is a young legal scholar who previously clerked for Israeli Supreme Court Justice David Mintz. Stub went to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree in law at Columbia University. There, he became aware of a gap between U.S. and Israeli law regarding compensation of terrorism victims. The U.S. was ahead of the game.

(Stub initiated the legislation together with Sander Gerber, a global investment manager who was behind the passing of America’s Taylor Force Act, which blocks U.S. aid to the P.A. until it ceases its pay-for-slay program.) 

“The biggest gap concerns punitive damages,” Stub told JNS. “In Israel, we compensate a terror victim for the actual damages he sustained. In the U.S., a victim receives additional compensation on top of that. Every lawsuit has two elements: actual damages and punitive damages. In Israel, victims can’t sue for punitive damages.”

Stub realized that Israel is not only blocking Israeli victims from being properly compensated, it’s forgoing “an easy, efficient tool” to fight terrorists by hitting them in their pocketbooks.

He is eager to see the bill become law for professional and personal reasons. When Stub clerked for Mintz, a case involving terrorism victims seeking compensation came before the Supreme Court. It ruled against the victims, denying them the right to sue for punitive damages, arguing that Israeli law didn’t provide for that option, (Mintz held the minority position).

On a more personal level, on Feb. 10, two children were killed: Yaakov Yisrael Paley, 6, and his brother, Asher Menachem Paley, 8, when a terrorist struck them with his car in a ramming attack at a Jerusalem bus stop. Yaakov and Asher were Stub’s cousins.

“You might say I’m highly motivated,” Stub told JNS.

Yaakov Yisrael Paley, 6 (left) and Asher Menahem Paley, 8. Courtesy.

He is optimistic the bill will pass. Thirty-six Knesset members from both sides of the aisle have signed onto the bill, which is being sponsored by MK Yitzhak Pindrus of the United Torah Judaism Party. The bill passed through the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on July 11.

It was positioned this week for its first reading in the Knesset plenum. (A bill requires three Knesset readings to become law.)

Maurice Hirsch, director of the P.A. Accountability and Reform Initiative and senior legal analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is also bullish about the legislation’s chances.

“Considering the really broad support that the bill enjoys from members of the Knesset, I believe that the bill will pass,” Hirsch told JNS, noting that the Justice Ministry expressed only minor reservations when examining it—“not even necessarily objections.”

Hirsch, who spoke at the initial committee hearing to debate the bill, arguing in its favor, said that punishing terrorists financially is an effective means to change their behavior. He noted the “enormity” of the P.A.’s pay-for-slay system and how it incentivizes more terrorism.

“If the P.A. knew that for every death of an Israeli for which they pay a terrorist a salary, the courts will be able to award punitive damages, say 50 million shekels, more even than the 10 million shekels that the Pindrus legislation suggests, then the Palestinian Authority would most probably be deterred from incentivizing, rewarding and paying for terror,” Hirsch said.

The bill just makes sense, Hirsch said, especially when considering that Israel spends more than half a billion shekels annually to pay benefits to the victims of terrorism. Rather than Israel dealing with the financial burden, it should transfer “this massive onus” of compensation to those responsible.

“It will make that possible by letting this legislation go forward,” he said.

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